Then came “the second Bush fairy tale.” The young Bush won a “swift and picturesque victory” over Saddam Hussein, only to run into the “unexpected weight and range and murderous force” of Iraqi opposition. The testimony of Chief Weapons Inspector David Kay–“We got it all wrong”–had the effect of driving “a stake in the heart of the administration’s main declared reason for going into Iraq.”
And now, nine months before the election, Cooke observed Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) “odd and lonely boast” that Bush would be driven from the White House, and “I’m the man to do it.” Perhaps the essayist, with his sense of America, thought that Kerry would really win. But, artfully, he hedged his bets and avoided a prediction.
These fragmentary quotations can only begin to convey the style with which this informed and scholarly journalist reduced complicated events into prose understandable across the ocean. You will gather that I am, and have long been, an Alistair Cooke enthusiast. Full disclosure requires me to note that we were of the same generation (he was born in 1908, eight years before me). We shared a love for radio, the most intimate form of communication. And as a foreign correspondent during much of my career, I appreciate the challenge of making a foreign country understandable to an audience back home.
As has been said of Edward R. Murrow, Alistair Cooke was made for radio and radio for him. Leafing through this treasure trove of essays on a wide variety of aspects of American life, I could almost hear the measured tones with which he delivered his observations. His first BBC essay in the collection, from 1946, was about the immigrant strain in American life (he himself was a naturalized American, educated at Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale). Throughout his career, his commentary on America was sometimes critical, but always affectionate.
He wrote of Damon Runyon and his own unique development of American vernacular: “Damon Runyon’s slang is as contrived and romantic as Dickens.” He wrote of boxer Joe Louis, whom he came to know: “I know it is hard, perhaps impossible, for any white man to appraise the character of any Negro.” Of the federal capital in 1949: “You’ll see that it’s impossible to talk about Washington without getting preoccupied with the government and its buildings. But that’s because there’s practically nothing else. Washington is not a capital like London…. And so as the sun sinks into the Tidal Basin… excuse me, I have just time to make the fast train up to Babylon-on-the-Hudson.” Of racial segregation, a subject that seemed to often occupy Cooke: “So, in the South, and in the Deep South most of all, the mere force of numbers is a threat, if only in the minds of men, to the political and social dominance of the white man.”
Of H.L. Mencken, one of the many American celebrities whom Cooke came to know: “As old age came on he was noticeably more tolerant, even of types he abominated, like evangelists, city politicians and golfers.” Of the assassination of President Kennedy: “We have been cheated, in a moment, by a wild but devilishly accurate stroke of the promise of what we had begun to call the Age of Kennedy.”
And, about 9/11: “So, the first thing I felt was, ‘this is a war. It’s here. It’s happening to us.’… It is the same feeling of bewilderment and secret fear (what next?) that Londoners felt after the first night of the Blitz, in September 1940.”
To dip into these essays is to relive a half-century with a particularly civilized observer. In his introduction, Simon Jenkins says that Cooke “perfected the journalism of personal witness, adapting it brilliantly to the medium of radio.” I’ll buy that.